Monday, September 06, 2004

The opportunity society 

On the NARN show Saturday I managed to get the second hour sitting with Captain Ed and Hindrocket, two of the bloggers who attended the RNC. I asked them which speaker they were most impressed by at the convention. To my surprise they both answered Rudy Giuliani. I watched Giuliani and I thought he was excellent too, but for me the winner hands-down was Arnold. And the reason he appealed to me was that if there was anyone giving the "big-tent" speech, it was him.

Today, Right Reading Room (a blogger who was at the MOB gathering after the show) links to an article by Karl Zinsmeister on the changing demographics for Republicans and Democrats.
Starting in the 1960s and '70s, whole blocs of "little guys"--ethnics, rural residents, evangelicals, cops, construction workers, homemakers, military veterans--began moving into the Republican column. And big chunks of America's rich elite--financiers, academics, heiresses, media barons, software millionaires, entertainers--drifted into the Democratic Party.

The extent to which the parties have flipped positions on the little-guy/rich-guy divide is illustrated by research from the Ipsos-Reid polling firm. Comparing counties that voted strongly for George W. Bush to those that voted strongly for Al Gore in the 2000 election, the study shows that in pro-Bush counties, only 7% of voters earned at least $100,000, while 38% had household incomes below $30,000. In the pro-Gore counties, fully 14% pulled in $100,000 or more, while 29% earned less than $30,000.
Why is that? An economist that has long affected my own study of economics is Mancur Olson, whose research covered a broad range of public choice/political economy concerns, and who was attracted as I was to the transition economies that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of his early works, The Logic of Collective Action, was required reading for me in graduate school. His later Rise and Decline of Nations, predicted that all democracies over time become calcified with special interests and cease to grow as vibrantly as countries where the "sclerosis" of collective action has been broken by some cataclysmic event such as war.

The poor have few reasons to promote collective action. They often do not benefit from it. Immigrants to the U.S. in particular have fled other countries where collective action has impoverished their citizens. Why would they wish to leave those places and come to places that are also encrusted with special interests engaged in calcifying their economies? They have a natural distrust of government.

I mentioned my grandmother on the air (and didn't get the time to explain this because Mitch was a bit dismissive of what he thought was going to be rhetorical flourish.) She was a staunch Republican, perhaps the staunchest I know. I have tried to document her history through an orphanage to the nurses' staff of Mashall Foch in Beirut in World War I, to Cairo and then to America. She came because she thought the shops were full of flowers and opportunities were plentiful. She kept her money in the mattress because she didn't trust the government to protect the banks, and the Depression had taught her not to trust banks. She "only got to America" (in Arnold's words) because a cousin who had agreed to marry my grandfather got cold feet. He seemed a decent enough guy, she thought, and he would take her to America. And so she went.

Thus it should be no surprise to hear immigrant Schwarzenegger proclaim "I would daydream about coming here . . . . Everything about America seemed so big to me -- so open, so possible." I hear that, and I hear Nana's soft German-Armenian accent, not Schwarzenegger's Austrian.

America gave me opportunities and my immigrant dreams came true. I want other people to get the same chances I did, the same opportunities. And I believe they can. That's why I believe in this country, that's why I believe in this party and that's why I believe in this President.

...If you believe that government should be accountable to the people, not the people to the government...then you are a Republican! If you believe a person should be treated as an individual, not as a member of an interest group... then you are a Republican! If you believe your family knows how to spend your money better than the government does... then you are a Republican! If you believe our educational system should be held accountable for the progress of our children ... then you are a Republican! ...

There is another way you can tell you're a Republican. You have faith in free enterprise, faith in the resourcefulness of the American people ... and faith in the U.S. economy.

Faith in an economy, not in a government (except the negative faith that government won't screw it up). In the long-run, most immigrants are here for a better life marked in material terms. And they try hard for it. And more and more, people are learning that free markets represent the best chance for the poor to find a way out. You want a fluid society when you're at the bottom, because static means stuck at the bottom. It is a dynamist view of government, in the Postrelian sense (and Virigina notes that this isn't new to the Republican party -- like so many trends, it began in California, though she may agree with John and Ed about Giuliani.)

I think the debate here should focus not in people's trust in government but government's trust in people. Who trusts you to decide where to work, and for how much? Who trusts you to make your own decisions about health care? Retirement? Product safety? The only place where trust in government is paramount is over defense and security issues. I actually think John Kerry gets this and this is why he tried to paint himself as trustworthy on the basis of his service in Vietnam, and why the Swiftees' attack was so damaging to his chances to re-election, because he won't get on the right side of the immigrants' concerns for the economy.